Monday, January 9, 2012

New Year, Fabulous Design News: Legendary John Dickinson Masterpieces Revived

David Sutherland creates a dramatic and elegant new collection of furniture and lighting designs originally designed in the seventies by the great California design icon John Dickinson. 

Sutherland’s new collection, released this week, is superb. It is authorized by Dickinson’s estate—and absolutely true to the eccentric and freewheeling spirit of the designer. 

I’m so impressed with David Sutherland’s highly professional and artistic approach to the John Dickinson collection. David had known John many years ago—and has worked diligently for many years to select and produce the key pieces for this collection. He has chosen durable materials (that can be used outdoors), and created line-for-line, and nick-by-nick copies of the originals. Bravo, David. 

The iconic African Tables 

Sutherland furniture celebrates the design of John Dickinson with a limited series of estate-authorized productions cast from the creator’s original works and molds.

I’m especially happy about this new collection.

California designer John Dickinson, who died in 1982, was a beloved mentor to me and a very close friend. 

I’ve written about John many times on THE STYLE SALONISTE (find these stories in the archive here and here). 

A very private person, he famously lived in an historic Victorian firehouse in San Francisco, and seldom traveled, but was admired by design insiders in Paris and London and New York.

He worked with just a few handpicked clients, and was visited by all of the design greats over several decades—Andree Putman, David Hicks, Angelo Donghia, Giorgio Armani, and an international retinue of photographers, fashion designers and social butterflies. 

John designed chic monochromatic interiors, and in the seventies he produced a collection of white plaster tables, many of the designs inspired by hand-carved African wood tripod tables, and graphic footed tables, along with tripod lamps. These are the distinctive designs David Sutherland is now offering. All reproduced line for line, inch-by-inch, in the spirit and style of the originals. 

“To me, the dullest room in the world is furnished in nothing but Louis XV or Chippendale or Queen Anne,” John Dickinson told me. “A house should be a very personal composition of things you can’t live without—not a museum.

Dickinson, who grew up in Berkeley, was opinionated, witty, erudite, generous, and thoughtful in his comments, and always down-to-earth. I was working on a book on John Dickinson when he died, but the project was set aside after one publisher’s deathless response: “We wouldn’t do a book on a dead decorator.”

Dickinson loved the design paradox Andree Putman calls, "rich and poor"—expensive upholstery details worked in plain canvas, an elegant slipper chair upholstered in white Naugahyde, muslin curtains done in the most Balenciaga way, expensive wool cord used as simply as jute twine, white plaster with rare woods, galvanized metal with cashmere throws.

Many design insiders today still consider John Dickinson the most innovative and original American interior and furniture designer of the 20th-century. Designers as diverse as Michael Smith, John Saladino, Vicente Wolfe and Gary Hutton sing his praises.

“John Dickinson’s furniture passes every test—for originality, quality and style,” said Liz O’Brien, a leading New York dealer in 20th-century design. “His design is for the ages. It’s burned into our cerebral cortex.”

Black and white photograph of John Dickinson photographed at his firehouse residence in San Francisco by Victor Arimondi.
For years, John Dickinson furniture has only been seen in museums or offered on auction sites. Collectors like Baby Jane Holzer, Michael Formica, Steven Volpe, and Reed Krakoff displayed his metal and plaster pieces in their interiors—as they became more and more rare.

Selections from Dickinson’s collection in the newly manufactured collection, The Sutherland John Dickinson Collection, are being offered exclusively through Sutherland and authorized showrooms.
The Regency or Egyptian influence was not in my mind when I first designed chairs and tables with animal feet,” John Dickinson told me. “I was after something mock primitive and quite surprising. The fetish-y thing is quite marvelous and it hadn't been explored at all. Designers usually have gone the other way, taking something primitive and refining it way beyond recognition. That way you usually end up with something banal. If you go the other way, as I did, you usually end up with something very peculiar looking but something quite successful.” 

Dickinson’s creations were originally crafted of plaster. New productions made by Sutherland are comprised of glass fiber reinforced concrete. Sturdy and sustainable for outdoor use, the pieces can withstand moisture, unlike the plaster originals.

Leading the collection are both the Medium and Small African Tables classic Dickinson pieces that display the combination of elegant refinement and playfulness that were his hallmark.

An inverted conical tabletop tapers down to three anthropomorphized out-pointing feet, each with defined toes. The rarely seen Large Six Legged African Table, designed by Dickinson for his own use in the firehouse is cocktail table sized sharing similar feet.
I don't like viewing my designs as sculpture. It's too pretentious.,” John Dickinson told me “This is not art, it's decorating. It's not fine art, it's decorative art and there's a world of difference. 


The Footed Table exhibits four animal styled legs supporting a rectangular top. 

The Hoofed Table employs four “forelegs” from an imagined hoofed creature, then crosses the legs in an ‘X’ shape and uses them to support a square top. 

With the Etruscan Table, these four striding legs support a rectangular top. 

The inverted cone-shaped Table With Rope Tie looks cloth-wrapped and rope tied. 

The Tree Stump Pedestal comes straight from nature with a representational natural form. 

There are three lamps in the collection: the Large Lamp with Dome Shade, perfectly balanced and ideally shaped by the brilliance of John Dickinson, and now brought into the 21st century by David Sutherland. 

The Twig Lamp as originally designed for a friend’s country house. It is rustic yet highly refined and perfectly proportioned for transitional or contemporary environments, as is the Footed Lamp. 

Balanced on three legs, the Footed Lamp mimics the legs of the Large African Table but in a smaller scale.

To round out the collection is the Twig Mirror. The original was carved pine. Both the lamps and the mirror are for indoors only. 

A photograph of John Dickinson at his 1893 firehouse residence on Washington Street in San Francisco. It may still be viewed today and looks precisely the same. Photograph taken by the great San Francisco photographer, Fred Lyon, and are used with permission.

Darrin Alfred, curatorial associate of architecture and design at SFMOMA, once said of Dickinson, “Dickinson’s designs demonstrate his ability to both startle and amuse in a constant pursuit of originality.” A major exhibition of the San Francisco-based designer’s drawings and furniture pieces were on display there in 2004.

“His designs … still look unique and fresh even after 20 years,” he added. Part of the reason for this was his use of industrial materials in neutral tones.

Dickinson preferred to create drama by altering the scale, shape and texture of furniture instead of using colors and patterns, which would date with the passing of years and changing styles. Using an austere, classically inspired visual vocabulary, he drew upon historical and cultural references to define a style that appeared refined yet casual, and timeless yet up-to-date.

Today’s examples by Sutherland are Dickinson’s original creations, in a stronger, more durable material.

David Sutherland has built his company partly on his own refined design sensibility but also by partnering with the greatest artists working in the design world today.

Now he reaches to the past and the future at the same time by bringing new, vigorous life to the work of one of design history’s acknowledged masters.

Polaroid image of John Dickinson photographed in 1981 by Diane Dorrans Saeks.

The Sutherland John Dickinson Collection is available through interior designers and architects, and represented in showrooms nationwide and internationally. 

To view the collection, visit or call 800-717-8325 for further information. 

The John Dickinson Collection is available to the trade only. Net prices for the David Sutherland John Dickinson Collection: From $970 for the small African tripod table to $3,500 for the 6-legged round African-inspired table. 

Photography: courtesy David Sutherland, used with express permission.


The Devoted Classicist said...

I like his bone motif furniture, too. I hope you will try again to have the book published; his work is so great and relatively unknown by the current generation of book buyers.

Unknown said...

i ADORE this collection and am so happy they've been re-released. perhaps mere mortals can afford them now (though i haven't checked out the pricing yet, so maybe it's still 40k for an endtable!)

JWC said...

Dickinson is fantastic... the plaster tables are awesome and I've always been a fan of the faux draped galvanized steel tables as well.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

HI John-

I am now once more thinking about the book--though you know that several publishers have demurred.
You are right-John Dickinson is know to insiders, though he did get a recent major boost on MILLION DOLLAR DECORATORS, the tv show, in which Jeffrey Marks acquired a Dickinson table. My blog traffic was off the charts after that.

Christian, Hi--The prices are terrace, especially to the trade. I think Sutherland has priced them well. I hope you'll get one.

Sybaritic, Hello--Yes, John Dickinson is the greatest. He was such a wonderful man--witty, insightful, so rich in knowledge, and hilarious.
The metal draped tables--they are going to be reproduced later this year. I will be writing about them. Keep posted...

peggy braswell said...

Do the book, YES! I adore all things Dickinson + so happy to see this post.

Karena said...

So talented and obviously a light hearted gent! I love his designs, the hoof x table and the rope tied table are my favorites.

All the Best!

Art by Karena

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Karena-

Thank you for your observation.
John Dickinson was very serious about his designs--but as you noted he was light-hearted in life. Had a great sense of humor, always.
I love the Sutherland collection.
Designers will adore it...they've been waiting for a fresh infusion of design.
best DIANE

Claudia Juestel said...

I am so excited that now more people have access to John Dickinson's iconic designs.



becky said...

I would buy that book in a New York minute! I am a long-time admirer or Dickinson and I enjoyed this post so much. I walked by a favorite store the other day, saw the African chair in the window and just about passed out. I'm so glad you are thrilled with the collection; it's the final boost that has me saving my pennies for a piece of it.